The Tremulous Hand of Worcester and the Transformation of the English Language

We know about the famous people of the medieval Worcester Priory and Cathedral, the abbots and the bishops, the royal and noble visitors, the saints and the sinners. But we usually don’t know much about the ordinary monks who lived, worked, prayed and died there, simply because their lives were very little recorded. Only occasionally are there clues allowing a picture to emerge. ‘The Tremulous Hand of Worcester’ is the name given to someone, almost certainly a monk, living at the Priory in the first half of the thirteenth century, who made thousands of notes in the Library’s oldest manuscripts, which all show a distinct tremble in the handwriting. A simpler name for him might be something like ‘the Shaky Writer’.

Tremulous hand on medieval Worcester manuscript in Worcester Cathedral Library

Folio 38r from Worcester MS F. 174, where the tremor can clearly be seen in the individual letters. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Modern scholars think that he suffered from a congenital tremor, a disability which affected control of his pen. He probably found it difficult to do fine work of any kind, and was therefore not employed as a regular manuscript copyist. Nonetheless he seems to have spent a lot of time studying the cathedral’s collection of old manuscripts written in Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, making notes and translations in the margins. And he did write at least one manuscript of his own.

Q5 f78va Anglo-Saxon Old English Bede Worcester manuscript

Example of 10th Century Old English – mixed with some Latin words – from Worcester MS Q. 5. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

Why was he making notes, and translating words from Anglo-Saxon? The reason is probably this: the Norman Conquest of 1066 brought rule over all England by a strong and efficient warrior class who spoke French. The rulers included Norman bishops and abbots who also spoke French. French remained the language of the court and the church hierarchy for several hundred years. For a time there was not much new writing in English, although it was still the language of most ordinary people, and if a priest wanted to read the bible or give a sermon to them in English, he would have to look hard for writting materials he could use.

One thing they could do was go back to the Anglo-Saxon manuscripts that were still to be found in church and monastery libraries. But then there was another problem: the English language had changed a lot even though it was maybe only 200 or 300 years since these works had been written. People who spoke English in 1200 could not easily understand works written in 900 or 1000. Here is an example to show you, using the opening lines of the Book of Genesis:

On angynne gesceop God heofenan and eorðan (Aelfric c. 1000)

In the bigynnyng God made of nouyt heuene and erthe (Wycliffe Bible 1395)

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth (King James Bible 1611)

Wycliffe Bible in Worcester Cathedral Library

Page from Worcester Cathedral Library’s Wycliffe Bible, written in Middle English c. 1400. Typically, this is the earliest form of English that most Early 21st Century speakers can recognise. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

So it looks as though the monk with the trembling hands was trying to make the Anglo-Saxon writings easier to understand. He started by adding little notes in his thirteenth-century English, and even copied out some writings in a manuscript of his own. This was the manuscript mentioned in a blog in January, the one that had been cut up and pasted together to strengthen the covers of an old book, rescued by Sir Thomas Phillipps and now to be seen in the Library catalogued as MS F. 174.

When he was making notes he had to use whatever he was allowed or could find for himself. Some notes are in pen, some are in slate or lead pencil, and some in crayon which was what they called hardened colour sticks. All these writing materials were expensive, and needed for writing and copying precious new manuscripts. The Tremulous Hand used what he could. He made notes in between the lines of the manuscripts, and in the margins, and in any empty spaces on the pages.

Tremulous hand gloss on Worcester manuscript

Interlinear notes parsing the gender of neuter words clearly visible on F. 174 folio 12r. Note also how the Tremulous Hand has written around the defect in the parchment. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

In this text there are interlinear notes showing a finer backward-leaning handwriting, done at a time when the tremor was getting more noticeable. Later on he started making notes in Latin, which might seems odd, if he wanted to make them more easily understood. But in those days, educated people were taught Latin, and monks in particular probably all knew Latin to some degree. And, of course, lots of religious works were already available in Latin. The Tremulous Hand could compare the Anglo-Saxon with the Latin versions to work out what the most difficult words meant. And sometimes he copied the whole Latin translation into the manuscript by the side of the Anglo-Saxon.

The work of the Tremulous Hand has been found in about twenty Anglo-Saxon manuscripts which all once came from Worcester, although they are mostly now found in other libraries, like the Bodleian in Oxford, the British Library in London, and in the famous collection at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge – how they all came to be in these places is a fascinating story in itself! They include commentaries on scripture, penance for sins, the monastic Rule of St Benedict, Bede’s Church History and the works of Pope Gregory the Great. In future blogs I would like to tell you some more about the manuscripts of medieval Worcester and about the monk who tried to make them better understood.

Tim O’Mara

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5 thoughts on “The Tremulous Hand of Worcester and the Transformation of the English Language

  1. This is really interesting, but I’m not sure it’s so accurate that in 1200 people couldn’t read English from 1000, given that manuscripts of AELfric’s sermons were still being copied in 1200. Your examples of how the language changed after 1000 is from 400 years later, not 200 years later.

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    • Hi Heidi – I’ll put this to Tim – our volunteer who wrote this piece – when I next see him, and let you know what he says!

      Afraid this is a bit outside of my area to comment on!

      Tom

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  2. The IETF (International Essential Tremor Foundation, a U.S.-based non-profit organization) is planning on doing a short article in an upcoming issue of the magazine, Tremor Talk, about the Tremulous Hand, based on Dr. Thorpe’s diagnosis. A member of our Medical Advisory Board, Dr. Elan Louis, agreed with the diagnosis, as well. We think the essential tremor community will find it fascinating and inspiring that they share a commonality with such a prolific writer from the 13 c. Whom should I contact for a quote and/or request hi-resolution images?

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    • Hi Rebecca,
      The article sounds like a great idea. Why not get in touch with Dr Thorpe (deborah.thorpe@york.ac.uk) for specific thoughts on the Tremulous Hand; if you would like some images, you could contact our Librarian David Morrison (davidmorrison@worcestercathedral.org.uk) or someone at the Bodleian library in Oxford where there are other examples of his hand.

      All the best,
      Rosie

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